“Are you absolutely positive you locked the door when you left?” Denise’s voice was too desperate for her words to be an accusation. More like a plea.
I adjusted the phone in my hand and the collar of my shirt.
“Yes. Absolutely. I went back up and checked.” The latter was a lie, but I was quite sure I’d locked the apartment when I left on Friday. No answer for a few long seconds.
“We think someone might have broken in…” her voice was rife with dread.
The thought didn’t fully register and I was too surprised to speak. The line was quiet for a minute, then she spoke again.
“We… Gale and I… like, there were footprints… his stuff was messed up, Gale’s, that is.”
“We’ll figure it out when I get there.”
Put simply, in the end, we didn’t really. I got there about two hours later; it was a bit before eleven in the evening. Gale and Denise looked alright, though a bit tired. The worry over what happened had somewhat dissipated by then, but they were still quieter than usual. I briefly tried to lift the mood, unsuccessfully.
Nothing seemed to come of the whole thing in the following days. We hadn’t found anything missing and no other concrete evidence of an actual break-in. One might think we’d live in fear after that, but without a constant reminder, we didn’t get the chance to really commit the whole ordeal to memory. Sure, I was even more careful about locking the door whenever I left, but that was mostly to ensure neither of them would be given a reason to doubt me.
The thing finally up and vanished from our minds when Gale collapsed one day while cooking himself some lunch. Hearing the loud crash, I dashed to the kitchen and found him lying on the floor.
Rushing to Gale’s side took me two, maybe three seconds, but my mind still seemed to have time to tumble through half a dozen thoughts. I’d never seen a person collapse like this before, and though I’d been taught what to do in these situations, I didn’t feel in control, not by a long shot. It was my own voice, shouting Gale’s name, which blew back the fog machine’s work on my mind.
I sounded calmer than I’d anticipated.
“Gale! What’s wrong?”
I was about to gently smack his face when he blinked and looked at me.
“Did I collapse?” he asks. I nod.
“Are you okay, man? You scared the shit outta me.”
“I don’t know, I don’t feel anything weird or anything…” he re-checks his explanation by pondering for a short while, considering whether or not he really is okay.
I offered him my hand and picked him up. I was relieved to see he could still stand. It took him a good long second to start laughing. Gale had a weird – and what I think is kind of childish – tendency to find serious stuff that somehow ended alright, funny. His unwavering optimism would come, sometimes, dangerously close to naivety, but in the moment, it was infectious. I laughed nervously.
“Man, the exams aren’t even starting and you’re already passing out on me.”
Then I added, the weight of the concern dropping my voice about half an octave:
“You really should head to bed and kick back…”
I was preaching to the choir, though. He was already in his half of our room, climbing into bed. He chuckled slightly and said yes, apparently feeling the need to belay my fears. His success was limited. He’d forgotten to stop the water, which ran through the leaves of a head of lettuce. I closed the tap and stared at the few brown roots, stretched like veins, reaching for the sinkhole. I started to worry about Gale.
“People don’t just collapse, right?”
This question was the seed, and growing from it was a stem of possible reasons. Gale had just returned from a trip to Africa, where he’d spent a whole month working part-time at a laboratory.
He got the relevant shots before going down there, but what if it was something else? A couple of years ago, in high school, we were privy to a slideshow of downright nightmarish afflictions one could pick up in Africa. I remember one called river blindness most vividly; a parasite worm that lives, feeds and breeds inside your eyes.
Apart from that wonderful nugget, my knowledge of diseases indigenous to Africa was very limited. My ignorance was anything but bliss. Rather, it was simply negative space to fill with terrifying possibilities.
Gale woke up a couple of hours later with eyes as glassy as marbles. He was sick. I brought him a glass of water and pelted him with questions about what could’ve caused it. He didn’t mind me asking, but he didn’t seem to have any idea about the origin of his sudden illness either.
On Friday, I decided to stay with him over the weekend to make sure he’s alright – we usually went back home at the end of the week, since it was a two-hour drive home. That was the day his fever peaked.
“Man, I could feed you brownie batter and it’d cook by the time it got to your stomach…” was my answer when he announced his temperature.
That night, I stayed up late doing homework, when Gale decided it was time to scare my very soul straight out of me by talking in his sleep. He did that sometimes, and it’s usually most akin to listening to Gale’s side of a telephone conversation with his mother. Without exception, I’d forgotten everything he’d ever said in his sleep up to that point.
After endangering the cleanliness of my underwear, he took a pause, drawing air slowly and calmly again. I chuckled to myself and rolled my eyes slightly. He and Denise would surely find the story hilarious in the morning.
Then, he spoke up again. The pitch of his voice was higher and he mumbled quickly. He sounded like he was resisting something. Hearing it made me uneasy. It was like watching a typical bullying scene from a movie, the sound lagging behind or staying just ahead of the picture. In that tender state of mind which seems to result from staying awake past one’s bedtime, I felt disturbed.
To my utter relief, his fever fell a bit the following day. This was reason enough for me to convince him to let me take him to the doctor. Our best bet was the hospital, but neither of us had a car, so we had to take the bus.
After an hour of being crammed in a sweaty bus, whose driver had decided that the summer had ended and air conditioning was no longer needed in spite of the blazing heat outside, we had to wait another thirty minutes before he could go in.
The trip back was even less fun, especially because of the dissatisfying “it’s probably nothing” Gale had gotten as his diagnosis. His fever was back, eyes bloodshot and glossy and he even had to lean on me for support as we returned home.
I felt tired, walking back from the station. That was the first time I saw a certain white van parked outside of our apartment block.
That same van, recognizable by a red eye logo of some sort, found a different parking spot in our street every single day from then on. Whenever I walked past it, on my way to college or to the store, I would see the driver shamelessly staring at me. From what I could see, he was a man in his forties, possibly fifties, with dark, round eyes set deep into his face. They followed me like two black camera lenses.
A TV company, no doubt scamming grandmothers and installing satellite dishes to spite the digital age and turn a short-term investment, or so I thought. I took it up with Denise, who said at first that she hadn’t noticed. She came back to me, totally creeped out later that same day, saying she had seen the van and the guy.
In the middle of the week, I found one of Gale’s potted plants had been completely destroyed, only a few green bits poking out of the dirt. He avoided the question when I asked him.
Then, something else happened. It must’ve been Friday, or at least Thursday, because Denise was already gone for the weekend. I decided to stay with Gale, again. I was awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of the front door being unlocked.
I checked the time on my phone. Half-past two. Was Denise coming back this late? Why? And why was she struggling with the lock so much? I decided to let her in and ask her why she’d come back and why she was so late.
“Denise? Hang on, I’ll get it for you.” I said. The clicking noise stopped immediately, and was followed by a short silence. Then, footsteps, at least two sets, rapidly receding away from the door. I unlocked the door, threw it open and looked outside, but I had taken too long.
The culprits were already behind the corner and stomping down the stairs full speed. I considered giving chase, but decided against it – there were at least two after all, and I was in my underwear.
Instead, I immediately took my phone and called the police. Another first for me. All of these things were happening within two weeks. What the hell was going on?
With that taken into account, I think I did a decent job keeping my calm on the phone. They told me that they’d send someone over and I thanked them, before setting the phone down.
“What’s going on?” came Gale’s weak voice from beyond the door.
I poked my head into our room and slowly told him that I thought someone was trying to break in and that I’d called the cops. In what little light the crack in the door offered, I could see his shocked expression.
“What?” he asked.
“I… someone was fiddling with the lock, I think. They ran away before I could open up to see them. I called the police, they’ll come soon. You should stay in bed, though.”
Gale seemed to disagree but was unable to get out of bed anyway. He looked terrible, as pale as a snowman, wrapped in blankets to stop his shivering. He was sweating like a snowman too, by the looks of it. Hair clung to his forehead in wet ribbons and I could even see the occasional sparkle of droplets of perspiration on his face.
The policeman took about thirty minutes, all of which I spent pacing between the hallway and kitchen, checking the entrance and the window. By the time he arrived, much of my energy supplemented by the adrenaline rush was gone. I got worried that I’d just dreamed the whole thing up. The embarrassing thought crept into my mind just as I was explaining what happened.
When I finished, he asked me a few things, then we went through it again. The conversation took over half an hour, and by the time it ended, I felt like I’d just been to an oral exam and failed miserably.
I worked up the courage and asked him about what would happen now. He took a second before answering, choosing his words, I think, to put my mind at ease.
“From what I can gather, this was probably a one-time deal. Break-ins are quite rare around here.”
He seemed to cut away a bit of the formality at that point, and I remember appreciating it greatly.
“Look, most of the times we get called in for attempted burglaries, we’re not called again. What I mean is, someone who got caught in the act is really unlikely to do it at the same spot,” he said.
This managed to calm me down. I thanked the officer kindly, and he told me not to hesitate to call again.
A day of being a zombie awaited me, so I quickly checked on Gale before hitting the hay. After that, we only got three or so full nights of sleep and even there I should speak for myself because my roommate was still very ill. I cooked him a few meals, but he mostly got by on salt sticks, his appetite was abysmal.
As if that wasn’t enough, I found another one of his plants had been vandalized and a piece of leaf was missing from a third. Denise returned on Sunday.
That night I was awakened by the sound of Gale coughing and choking on something. I jumped up and immediately ran to him, slapping on the light, asking what was wrong. He was holding his throat and thrashing around in bed. He freed himself from the blanket and fell to the floor.
“Gale! Shit. What’s going on?”
No answer, and the coughing noises stopped. I pull him up by the waist using both of my arms. He doesn’t resist, but he’s not helping either. I manage to get him to stand, bent over. I hit him on the back five times. Nothing.
“DENISE! HELP!” I cry at the top of my lungs.
I started with the abdominal thrusts. There was a small noise in his throat each time I pushed. Denise came rushing into the room.
“Oh my go-!” she cried, but I cut her off.
“Call 911! He’s choking!”
Denise stood there in a daze for a second, hand over her mouth. She stared at Gale, hanging limply from my arms.
“NOW, DENISE!” I shouted again, shocking her out of her trance. Denise scurried to her room and I could hear her talking into the phone. Gale started to shake and convulse, freeing himself from my grip and falling to the floor.
The floor stayed still, but the walls spun around a little when I saw Gale, lying on the floor on his side. A vine hung out of his mouth. Wet leaves, covered with vomit, were piled next to his face, the sour-smelling liquid pooling out from underneath him.
Darkness advanced from the corners of my vision, threatening to make me faint any second. I bent down to Gale, my chin stuck to my chest, looking up at him sideways. Strong nausea gripped my stomach and the back of my tongue.
I pulled on the vine, but it was slippery, forcing me to spool it around my hand to get a better grip. I pulled on it again, moving it a good ten centimeters. Gale gagged and more thick fluid came out of his mouth. There were undigested bits of leaves, not attached to the vine, too. I grit my teeth harder, wondering how much longer I could do this for.
That’s when the paramedics stormed in. Denise led them into the room, and they shoved me out of the way. I immediately ran to the toilet and emptied my stomach. I then got up, washed my hands and my face thoroughly, feeling incredibly light-headed. Gale was already on the stretcher and the men were carrying him outside.
A weird thought occurred to me then. In my dizziness, one of the paramedics seemed familiar for some reason, but I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly. I thought I almost had it, but couldn’t remember at all.
Ten minutes later, a loud siren announced an ambulance pulling into the street. Every blare it made sent a chill down my spine.
I dashed to the window. The ambulance stopped in the middle of the road and two people jumped out of the back. I watched in horror as the figures went through the entrance of our apartment block.
The paramedic I’d recognized carrying Gale away earlier, was the one from the van that had been watching us. Denise held a confused conversation with the real paramedics while I dialed the police, sitting on the floor under the window.
Denise and I spent the rest of the night at the police station, sleeping on the waiting chairs after answering God knows how many questions.
There has been no news of Gale’s whereabouts since. Denise and I were told to move out of the apartment, and neither of us complained one bit. Things have gone quiet. It’s been a year.
It seems like a terrible dream, looking at it now. The only thing maintaining my faith is the fact that Denise saw it too, I know, because I don’t know how many times I’ve asked her. Out of fear of what might happen, I’ve kept quiet about this up to this point and while I’d like to say I’ve finally overcome this fear, that’d be a lie.
In fact, fear is the main reason why I’m writing this. You have to understand. There’s been a white van with a red eye parked outside of my place for the past three days.
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